by Pam Bates
In 1966, official concern over the vulnerability of the Whooping Crane population led to a joint agreement between Canadian Wildlife Service, (CWS) and the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, (USFWS) to collaborate on a captive-breeding program to conserve the species. To accomplish this, eggs would have to be removed from nests in the wild at Wood Buffalo National Park, (WBNP) and the man chosen and best suited for this task was wildlife biologist, Ernie Kuyt who worked for the Canadian Wildlife Service.
For eleven years, Bob Isbister worked for the Canadian Wildlife Service and for three years worked the flights during the whooping crane egg collection. Following is a memory of Bob’s during the egg collection at WBNP and working with Ernie Kuyt.
Friends of the Wild Whoopers thanks Bob for allowing us to share his memories and photos by USFWS and National Geographic.
Operation Whooping Crane by Bob Isbister
I worked for CWS for 11 years (1967 to 1978) as Wildlife Technician in the Surveys and Enforcement section (we rarely engaged in enforcement). I then left to pursue my ambition to go to university, graduating in 1981 with a Commerce Degree and have spent the ensuing years in the field of Economic Development.
206 Bird Dog Plane
My job in the bird dog plane was to record the reaction of the adult whooping cranes during the whooping crane egg pick up. How far they flew away etc. They all stayed within a few hundred yards, hence the importance of Ernie’s weekly, then daily flights to the nesting grounds. For the first couple of years, I had to take a “tourist” with me, either a scientist and once a well known National Geographic photographer.
The late Ernie Kuyt and the pilot had mastered locating most of the nests. Ernie conducted several pre-pick up flights to monitor egg laying. The plan was to pick up the eggs late in the incubation period to minimize the chance of the adults abandoning the nest.
Now this wasn’t easy flying, as we had to fly “orbits” while the chopper was on the ground for the whooping crane egg pick up. With about 14 nests done in 2 days, this represents a lot of turning, often made worse by turbulence. Luckily, I have pretty much an iron gut for this, but these poor guys invariably got sick and didn’t always hit the bag.
I remember lying down on the dock thinking “no way in hell I’m going back up in the afternoon”. But after a few minutes and the pilots call to “lets go to town and get some bacon and eggs, away I went, brand new again.
A sock and a stick
There is cute story about the officials designing a special box to help Ernie carry the whooping crane eggs from the nest to the helicopter. Upon seeing this ‘special’ box, Ernie said “Hell I’m not going to carry that thing in the marsh I’ve got a wool sock which is way better!” So he brought an extra woolen sock and proceeded to carry the eggs out, one by one. It was quite the sight seeing Ernie with the sock, egg inside in one hand and a stick for trudging back through the marsh in the other hand.
Traveling in style and the press
Four Mile Lake
The last memory and comment is about Four Mile Lake; it is about 1 mile long and maybe 400 yards wide, oriented NNW by SSE. There was marker buoy at both ends of the lake about 300 yards before the end. If you weren’t airborne by then it was abort time. Theoretically that is!
One afternoon we took off to the south in the freshly fueled 206 heading south. We were still on the water at the abort buoy, but undeterred the pilot pulled into the air; now I must say that those small black spruce that rimmed the lake never looked so tall. We cleared them and then the plane sunk to just above the muskeg where we coaxed more airspeed and altitude and away we went. I’ve never liked the 206 since!
Editor’s note: We hope you enjoyed this historical article but Friends of the Wild Whoopers opposes egg collection from the nests of the wild whooping crane flock.
***** FOTWW’s mission is to help preserve and protect the Aransas/Wood Buffalo
population of wild whooping cranes and their habitat. *****
Friends of the Wild Whoopers is a nonprofit 501(c)3 organization.